Lot 12
  • 12

Fine Tsimshian Polychrome Wood Mask

200,000 - 300,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood, red cedar (thuja plicata)
depicting a male face, with finely carved chin and cheekbones, slightly parted lips, nose with well-defined bridge, flaring nostrils, pointed oval eyes pierced through the center beneath arched eyebrows, and naturalistically sculpted ears, the face painted overall with totemic designs; fine aged patina overall.  


Bernard and Bertrand Bottet, Nice

Christie's Paris, June, 2011, lot 114

Acquired by the present owner from the above

Catalogue Note

This sensitively carved mask is typical of the Tsimshian style and falls into the category of portrait mask. For a discussion of portrait masks from the Northwest Coast see JCH King, Portrait Masks of the Nortwest Coast of America, London, 1979, pp. 23, 26 – 31: "A very large percentage of the surviving portrait masks were collected before 1879...It is...the sensitivity of the carving, which has given rise to the frequent claim that many of them are portraits. Franz Boas, the greatest anthropologist of the Northwest Coast, arrived in 1886 with photographs and drawings of masks whose significance he wanted to ascertain. He discovered that it was seldom possible to find the exact significance of individual masks unless he visited the village from which they came. This was partly because masks were made for the use of particular individuals who gave them their meaning, and partly because masks were traded from village to village and tribe to tribe and in this process their meaning was liable to change or become lost.

It was the masks, however, on which the greatest ingenuity, care and attention were lavished. Of the many different types it was those depicting the human face which were at once the simplest and the most sophisticated. They are simple because the subject-matter is straightforward, and because the technical skill of the carving is apparently uncomplicated. The sophistication of human face masks lies in the understanding of the human form and the artist's ability to communicate this understanding in a variety of dramatic ways.

Another unusual aspect of these abstract designs when used on masks is that they are rarely symmetrical. This decorative scheme was formalized by the northern tribes, the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian, but its origin probably lies in a little-known earlier art style common to the whole of the Northwest Coast. During the nineteenth century the Southern Kwakiutl, and to a much lesser extent the Nootka, began to adopt the intellectualized design principles of the north.

Face painting on masks usually represented designs of crests and shamans' spirits. Among the northern Northwest Coast Indians crests were inherited from real or mythological ancestors in the form of animals. A chief and his family would have a large number of crests, but only the chief would be entitled to wear them all. Most Tlingit human face masks are connected with shamanism rather than with crests and the painting symbolizes, in a very abstract way, an animal or other natural spirit helper. Facial painting, therefore, when transferred onto masks, is another possible way in which portraiture and representation may have been realized."

Also see Macnair, et. al., Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast, Vancouver,1998, p. 60: "By far the majority of masks collected on the Northwest Coast until about 1850 represent a human face or an animal in anthropomorphic guise...To date, most of those depicting the human face have been categorized as portrait masks, a term that implies the likeness of the visage of a real person is intended. The sense of skin and underlying musculature evoked by the mask."